Chickasaw Nation: The Fight to Save a Dying Native American Language
A 50,000 year-old indigenous Native American tribe that has weathered the conquistadors, numerous wars with the Europeans, the American Revolution and the Civil War is now fighting to preserve its language and culture by embracing modern technology.
There are 6,000 languages spoken in the world but linguists fear that 50% of them will become extinct within the next century. In the US, 175 Native American languages are spoken, but fewer than 20 are expected to survive the next 100 years.
The language of the Chickasaws, known as “Chikashshanompa”, is a 3,000-year-old living language that is categorised by Unesco as being “severely endangered”.
The last remaining monolingual speaker of this language, Emily Johnson Dickerson, 93, died in December. Now the tribe is scrambling to make sure that its language does not become lost.
Dwindling native speakers
The Chickasaw Nation consists of 57,000 people, including 38,000 who live in 13 counties in Oklahoma, a state designated as the Indian Territory which boasts rich oil and natural gas preserves.
"There were over 3,000 speakers of Chickasaw in the 1960s," Joshua Hinson, director of the Chickasaw Nation Language Department tells IBTimes UK.
"The last native speakers who learnt the language at home were born in the late 1940s. From that point on, with people leaving Oklahoma for other parts of the US, mandatory schooling and political pressures to be bilingual in English, the number of people dropped, and now, our youngest native speakers are in their 60s."
There are now only 65 native speakers of the Chickasaw language who are also fully bilingual in English, and only four to five confident conversational speakers who are under the age of 35.
Modern Chickasaw people in Oklahoma live in houses on land held in trust for the Chickasaw Nation by the Federal government.
They have been Christian since the Civil War, although religion co-exists with traditional native Chickasaw customs.
Some customs have died out, such as the native doctors and practice of native medicine, but others, like the role of the woman as a matriarch in the family and in government, have continued, and 60% of the community’s leaders are women.
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Preservation of language is a cultural necessity!